TAMPA — As the Tampa Tarpons took batting practice ahead of their home opener Tuesday, Rachel Balkovec couldn’t be found in the dugout or clubhouse where most managers handle their preparations.
Instead, she was on the infield with a glove on, simulating double plays, catching balls at first base and instructing players. It’s the type of hands-on coaching the 34-year-old said she has used for a decade since she began her career in baseball.
Now, as the first woman to manage a Major League Baseball-affiliated team, Balkovec said she doesn’t plan on changing her approach — even after an accident in a training session last month caused her left eye to become swollen shut.
“I feel so much more helpful when I can jump in there and actually be having conversations with players,” Balkovec said. “I know there are different styles, but for me, I want to be in the middle of it and have access to them and they have access to me.”
It’s a style that propelled Balkovec to her current position with the Tarpons, who are the Single-A affiliate of the New York Yankees and play at George M. Steinbrenner Field in West Tampa. And it’s one that may be paying off already, as her club won their first game on Friday and their home debut Tuesday night. Balkovec said Tarpons players chanted her name on the bus ride home last weekend and did mock interviews with her as the focus.
While her job is to develop future Major League Baseball players, Balkovec understands the significance of being the first woman to hold her position. She said she thinks about the hundreds of women, girls and girl dads who have flooded her with support and admiration as she has moved up in the sport. After Tuesday’s win, she signed autographs for girls who gathered outside the Tarpons’ dugout.
“I’m highly aware of it and it drives my actions pretty much every day,” Balkovec said.
She hopes to inspire more women to work in baseball just as she was inspired by women who came before her. One way is through a mentorship program, where she coaches individuals on how to break into fields where they’re underrepresented.
In the description of the program, which she plans to resume after baseball season ends in the fall, Balkovec wrote about her struggles being a woman in baseball.
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“I’ve spent the last 12 years creating an unprecedented career as a woman in a male-dominated industry,” Balkovec wrote. “I’ve traveled the globe, met incredible high-level thinkers and developed relationships with several key mentors that have changed my life. I’ve also been through a lot. I’ve been discriminated against, felt lonely, gone through bouts of depression, doubted myself, and even navigated identity loss as an athlete and a coach.”
Balkovec says her biggest inspiration came from Sue Falsone, who became the first woman to lead the athletic training staff of an MLB team when the Dodgers promoted her to the role in 2012.
Falsone’s promotion coincided with Balkovec’s first job in baseball. The Nebraska native was hired in 2012 on a temporary contract as a strength and conditioning coach for the Johnson City Cardinals in Tennessee, where she was named the Appalachian League’s strength coach of the year in her first season.
Balkovec quickly ascended to the job of minor league strength and conditioning coordinator for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2014. Later, she became the Houston Astros’ Latin American strength and conditioning coordinator, then held the same position for another affiliate with the Astros.
Balkovec earned a bachelor’s degree while she played softball at Creighton and the University of New Mexico and then a master’s degree in kinesiology from Louisiana State while working for the Astros. She left in 2018 to pursue her second master’s degree, in human movement sciences, at Vrije University in the Netherlands.
This experience led Balkovec to the New York Yankees in 2019, where she was hired as a minor league hitting coach. She said each of these stops prepared her to be the Tarpons’ manager.
Does Balkovec ever want to manage in the major leagues? She says maybe, but she tries to avoid making long-term goals because you can miss an open door right in front of you.
“My end goal is not to stay in the minor leagues, but I’m also not worried about getting anywhere soon,” Balkovec said.